Global warming and the Acroporid decline in the Caribbean

The Center for Science & Public Policy have released a document entitled Are U.S. Coral Reefs Endangered by Global Warming? , which is picking up a fair amount of controversy amongst all parties involved. I think this is a fairly important issue that needs to be resolved (debunking the pseudo-science): more from me on this shortly, along with analysis from coral researchers who have been examining this phenomenon for over three decades.


Let’s start with the basics of the Center for Science-Based Public Policy (in the efforts of transparency). It’s all to easy to allege that the Centre is a mere puppet-front for petroleum industry propaganda, considering has received a grand total of $793,575 in funding from ExxonMobil since 1998 (not too dissimilar to our very own Australian right-wing “think tanks”, also funded by ExxonMobil subsidiaries).
Amongst other people of notoriety associated with the Center for Science-Based Public Policy is Senator James Inhofe who was awarded the “Center Honoree” in 2004. For those of you who don’t know Sen Inhofe’s legendary reputation, he is not only as a renowned climate change skeptic, but also the author of such famous quotes as:

“I don’t have to tell you about reading the Scriptures, but one of mine that I’ve always enjoyed is Romans 1, 22 and 23. You quit worshipping God and start worshipping the creation — the creeping things, the four-legged beasts, the birds and all that. That’s their (the environmentalists’) god. That’s what they worship. If you read Romans 1:25, it says, ‘and they gave up their God and started worshipping the creation.’ That’s what we are looking at now, that’s what’s going on. And we can’t let it happen.”

Anyhow, enough of the slander of the ” Center for Science-Based Public Policy” (it’s just too easy) – let’s get back to the (pseudo) “science” involved in the report. Firstly, the authors claim that:

“a closer look at the scientific evidence reveals that the impact of global warming on the overall health of coral species is likely to be positive”

I for one am astounded that a ‘closer look’ at the science involves discussing and citing a grand total of two peer-reviewed journal articles (excluding the meeting abstract). Is this really a “closer look”? Here is Bill Precht’s view, recently posted on Coral List (follow the full discussion here and here)


It appears that The Center for Science & Public Policy and the Frontiers of Freedom Institute have misconstrued the interpretation put forth in a 2004 manuscript authored by myself and Rich Aronson. This article discussed range expansions and contractions of reef-building corals in response to climate flickers.

Range expansions and contractions are expected in response to changing temperatures, whether measured as air temps or SSTs (see meta-analysis papers by Root et al, Parmesan et al). The evidence from the coral literature supports this as well. Clearly, we should not be surprised that we are witnessing the range expansions of cold-sensitive corals at their latitudinal extremes. In addition, the geological literature is filled with similar examples in time and space. The question with regards to the ongoing global catastrophe is: what’s happening to the corals in the insular tropics?

When you read the Precht & Aronson (2004) paper it is helpful to read the whole thing and not take out the tidbits that fit a prescribed story – which is exactly what they did! The anonymous author(s) of the piece ignored some of the main points of our paper, including, “On the other hand, geographic shifts will not mitigate expected ecological and economic losses resulting from the reduced functions of tropical reef systems”

Our concluding paragraphs (in Precht & Aronson 2004) further state that

“The staghorn coral thickets off Fort Lauderdale present an interesting case. Are these remnant populations, or are they the recent product of a chance recruitment event? Do they represent a temporary range expansion that is likely to be obliterated by the passage of the next subfreezing cold front, disease outbreak, or hurricane? Are they an indicator of global climate change? These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, but only through genetic analysis of populations and long-term monitoring will we be able to answer such questions definitively.

The fossil record of coral reefs is helping us predict the impacts of future climatic warming. Although it is likely that reef-building corals will expand their ranges to higher latitudes in response to global warming, geographic shifts of marginal reefs will not mitigate the expected ecological and economic losses due to localized coral mortality and reduced function in tropical reef systems. Understanding the causal links between climate change and the dynamics of reefs and other ecosystems will continue to be a challenge in the face of natural variability, uncertainties inherent in predictive models, and the complex impacts of human activity all over the planet.”

Finally, this topic was also reviewed in the Pew Center’s publication entitled “Coral Reefs & Global Climate Change” by Buddemeier, Kleypas and Aronson (2004)

Will Global Warming be Good for Reefs? (see page 17)

“About 5,000-6,000 years ago, an earthquake lifted a coral community out of the sea at Tateyama, Japan, at the same latitude as Tokyo. That community contained at least 72 species of corals, compared to the 35 now found in the vicinity (Veron, 1992, 1995). Tateyama sea-surface temperature (SST) was 1.2-1.7°C warmer at that time than at present, because the earth was experiencing a warm period known as the Altithermal, or Middle Holocene High (Veron and Minchin, 1992). This suggests that corals and reef-building could migrate to higher latitudes in response to global warming. Geographic shifts of reefs would not mitigate the ecological and economic problems caused by the loss of tropical reefs, but it would partly alleviate concerns about global biodiversity loss. The problem with comparing the effects of Altithermal warming and future warming is that little besides temperature would be comparable. Then, any human settlements in the area were small and primitive, and the coastline was essentially pristine. Today’s corals would have to settle and survive in highly populated and developed areas with intensive agriculture, fishing, pollution, coastal construction, and other societal artifacts that make coastal waters inhospitable to coral communities. When Tateyama reaches the temperature levels of 5,000-6,000 years ago, the chemistry of the water will be less favorable to coral growth and reef building (Kleypas et al., 2001; Guinotte et al., 2003; see Box 7). With both suitable habitat and the potential for coral and reef growth reduced, future immigrant corals will face very different prospects than their predecessors.”

I think our position is clear and it does not favor the view that the current aspects of global change are natural and will be good for reefs. On the contrary, we believe that human induced climate change is one of society’s most pressing challenges – now and in the future – and that the survival of reefs as we know them is hanging in the balance.

Finally, it is interesting (and a bit disturbing) to see my words, photos and figures used in this unintended way. The way the report is prepared it looks as though Precht and Aronson either wrote the piece or endorsed it. We did neither, and while they gave full attribution when reproducing our figures and photos they did so without our permission.

Finally, here is Ernesto Weil’s view from the ground in Puerto Rico (considering that the Center for Science & Public Policy seem to think that the Caribbean equates solely to the Florida Keys):

Bleaching is just one factor that has only produced significant mortalities (large colonies and stands in relatively shallow waters) after the 1998 and 2005 bleaching events. The 2005 event wiped out the largest A.cervicornis and A.prolifera shallow populations in La Parguera and produced partial and total mortality in several A. palmata colonies. Mild events have produced minor partial mortalities in few colonies only.

1 thought on “Global warming and the Acroporid decline in the Caribbean

  1. Good Stewards?

    America has come to a consensus. The American people want to protect the environment.
    Unfortunately, there’s a mindset today in America: If you care about the environment, you’re probably not a conservative. My advice? Republicans should head for the hills. Literally. Climb a mountain, go on an adventure, join the millions of Americans who enjoy the outdoors and want to take care of it.
    Too many Republicans have forgotten that conservation is conservative. Many are now realizing there’s a lesson to learn and a legacy to be passed on to our children and grandchildren, not just on family values and taxes, but also on the environment.
    – Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.)

    All of us who care about the environment can easily become depressed. The news is so often profoundly disturbing: the destruction of forests, the disintegration of coral reefs, the extinction of species, over-fishing, global warming and a multitude of other disasters and gloomy forecasts can cause us to wonder if there is any point in even trying to take action. But God’s word provides much-needed grounds for hope, e.g. the prophets Isaiah and Hosea foretell a time of human and environmental harmony, and Colossians 1, verses 15-17; Romans 8, verses 19-23.

    It is easy for us to understand that God cares deeply about all his creation. The Bible makes this clear in many passages, e.g. Psalm 50, verses 10 & 11, where God says “every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine.”

    God instructs his people to rule over “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” in a way that reflects his own image. Not just his power, but his unselfish love, mercy and tender compassion.

    The environment is an issue of justice. Often it is the poor who suffer first when the environment is damaged.

    Caring for Creation should be every person’s business, everywhere. From individual homes to the household of the biosphere, every person and every institution is a steward of Creation, serving and being served by the creatures and processes that nurture and sustain us all. By serving creation and one another, we serve and glorify God. And God has provided Creation as the great evangelist, awakening humility, awe and wonder at the divine power and majesty. In its beauty and integrity, Creation itself praises and points to the One in whom all things are held together, the One who calls us to serve and keep the garden. We need to go out of the laboratory and classroom and into the vast “University of Creation” where they can behold for ourselves the wisdom and glory of God.

    Gen. 2: 15 … The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it . .

    There’s a huge overlap between environmental stewardship and economic stewardship. When you think about it, God created the world so that we depend on it for our material existence. That includes the natural environment and all the stuff that we build from the natural environment. He allows us to make a living from it, and when we take care of it well, we prosper.
    — EEN’s R. Pritchard

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